See Chuck's previous article.
A 12 foot, 10 pound, folding kayak. Last year’s article was kindly introduced by Chuck Leinweber with the word “seriously”. What follows is a continuation article that talks about what amounts to a major improvement to the last improvement to the design. An appropriate title would be:
A Never-Ending Messing-About Story
As my favorite great quotes guy Yogi Berra would say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” This report is about, what for me, amounts to a real success story. I have completed a major improvement on a boat that I thought was as good as it was going to get. I’ve completed a change that pretty much eliminates the only “bugging me” feeling aspect of the design. And I now feel more comfortable about offering plans and instructions for sale.
The last year’s publication/posting was, I thought, the commemoration trophy, of a many-year design, development, plans, and instructions project, and my wife hoped (foolishly) that maybe now we could spend more time together: like just talking or maybe even eating out.
Actually, the thought that the project was finally finished lasted several months. It was at the 2009 West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium in Port Townsend, WA, where the “what if” thoughts got started. It was the symposium where my Alice presentation was listed on the program as a “101 Pound Folding Kayak,” rather than the 10 boat it is. And I never got the promised pay for my presentation. All in all, it would seem I would have been better off staying home and talking to my wife. Except that I ended up with a new friend and, ultimately, an idea for a significant improvement for my Alice’s.
A casual meeting with the representative for PAKBOATS proved the whole trip very worthwhile. Anyone interested in folding kayaks will know that PAKBOATS is a major player with a quality line of canoes and kayaks. And anyone interested in folding kayaks will likely have seen the name Ralph Hoehn. Yes, Ralph, with an encyclopedic knowledge of folding kayaks, frequent internet contributions, and his connection with the German folder, Pouch. Ralph and I did some “get to know you chatting,” but mostly we talked about folding kayaks, in general, and our boats and dreams in particular. For me, a really stimulating conversation. Equally as stimulating as talking with my wife, but on a subject I rarely have an opportunity to chat about. Living in a white-water state, flat-water socializing is hard to come by. It’s really quite wonderful how fun and how much a work in isolation, like Alice, can benefit from such a conversation. The brief exposure to an inquiring, inventive, mind, like Ralph’s, was really rewarding: a look at the same problems through different eyes.
A little history: My boat, Alice, is named for a lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness Area. It’s just one more gem of a lake in remote Idaho, but it’s the particular one responsible for the initial idea: how neat it would be if I could get out on lakes like this in a real boat. An elementary revelation but tough to realize. Alice Lake is a prime hiker/backpacker destination. A good trail but rough: six miles one way with 1,600 foot elevation gain and six stream crossings (only one of which has a bridge).
Way back when I started this project, I held that the closer the pack weight approached thirty pounds the less interest I had in making the trip. And as time has marched on, the thirty pound limit has decreased considerably. Back to when I started the project, the only boats of interest that I could find weighed around thirty pounds by themselves – not counting paddle, pfd, etc. I concluded that, for it to be a fun time on a remote lake, I needed a boat that weighed only around ten pounds. This would give me everything I needed for a day hike with a pack weight of around twenty pounds.
This was the starting point for an embarrassingly long design/development project. To begin, I wasn’t even sure that a 10 pound boat was doable. And some fairly knowledgeable people assured me that it wasn’t.
I made a couple test hulls from rigid building construction foam, and a wood-framed model, before I even started naming and numbering the iterations. I’m now at Alice 4.2. In between. I bought and learned how to use a naval architecture computer-aided design program (CAD) and got just proficient enough with the infamous AutoCAD program, to turn out the plans. Because I didn’t want to be influenced by the standard accepted approaches to the problem (start with a clean slate), I may have done some re-invention of the wheel. I suspect the vast majority of American males would rather spend an equal amount of time watching sports on TV. But who wants to be average? And it just so happens that designing boats is something I’ve always wanted to do.
I ended up, I thought, with a 12 ft., 10 pound kayak. A real boat: but I would have to classify it as flat-water, recreation boat. It could be folded (disassembled would be a better word) and carried in a medium-sized back pack. I even created plans and instructions.
Which brings up the interesting (for me at least) question: why plans and instructions? Other than building a boat for me and one for the wife, why go to the major effort of creating plans and instructions? The truth is, I’m still struggling with this question. Financial gain was never a thought. In current vernacular, an Alice would be a niche product. And a very narrow niche at that. From the beginning it was going to be a flat-water boat and, besides foldability, for a potential builder to be interested, weight would have to be an issue. Also, as it turned out, even if you built it yourself it would not be a particularly cheap boat (currently around $ 850). Certainly, part of the reason for going on with plans was simply the challenge: the uncertainty of whether I could do an acceptable job. For me, this was the ultimate “Messing About” project. And also, though I don’t want to make a big noble claim, I’ve got to tell you that being able to get out on these remote lakes is something really special, magical. So, believe it or not, part of the motivation was to help make it possible for other people to experience the profound pleasure I do. And though I can’t assign percentage values, I’m afraid that, on the other end of the scale, ego played a major role in creating plans and instructions.
All the above-mentioned is my way of getting to the subject of this article: never leave well enough alone. I have come up with a major improvement. In any design there will be a hierarchy of satisfaction with the various elements. In other words, some aspect that’s in last place for desirable characteristics. For my Alice boats it was assembly time. I had met my most important weight goal and disassembled volume was acceptable. But the honest (at reasonable speed and proficiency) assembly time was approximately 45 minutes. My upgrade from 4.1 to 4.2 gives me an assembly time that should almost never be more than 30 minutes. And assembly is also physically easier and more straight-forward. Also, though making the skin is now a little trickier to explain, it is now easier and takes less time to make.
So could I make assembly time even shorter? Sure. I looked at a mega number of possibilities and even tested a few. However, everything I came up with, either increased the weight or construction complexity by an unacceptable amount.
So, for the big improvement, the frame stays the same, but the re-designed skin makes it so the frame can be completely assembled before it is inserted into the skin (in one piece). Much nicer.
In order to get the improvements past the “thinking about it” stage, I needed to fabricate a new skin for Alice 4.1 to prove that the scheme would actually work. And since I had drawn up plans and instructions and sold a few copies, I was now obligated to modify them so as to reflect the changes. This was another long period of limited communication with my wife. But this phase has passed, and now all I have to do is decide how and to what extent I want to promote my boat for sale.
I had only sold two sets of plans when I went to the sea kayak symposium (which proved to not be a sales opportunity). So, my only real advertising effort was the article in MAIB and a reprint of the article on the Duckworks magazine web site. I had some ideas (still do) for advertising, but it now appears that, in boat building circles, there isn’t much demand. In defense of the design, I think it only fair to repeat the oft stated, “the shorter the boat the more it gets used,” to which I would add, “the less a boat weighs, the more it gets used.” However, it’s feeling like, if I’m going to be able to con any significant number of people into building an Alice, they’ll be mostly from the primary interest group: backpackers, which is who the boat was designed for in the first place. The obvious thing wrong with this picture is that the average dedicated backpacker probably isn’t much interested in building boats. A kit would help. Part of the thinking that went into the improvement was how it would help in coming up with a kit. However, setting up for a kit would require a capital expenditure that would require an optimistic estimate of demand.
So it appears that any hope for creating a significant population of Alices would require somebody building them, complete, for sale. And there are a whole lot of things wrong with this picture. Setting up for production would require even more money than for kits and therefore an even more reasonable/confident hope for future profits. Pricing would likely be a problem since, in its present configuration, building is rather labor intensive. However, it would be possible, if there was some reliable evidence that the market was there.
One more interesting part to this story: there has been a recent, pleasant, surprise. Somebody bought a set of plans and instructions--not to build an Alice but to build a boat of his design using my structural approach/construction method. So, just a little more history. When I started naming and numbering Alices was when I finally started using lightweight trusses for the frame. Generally speaking, the greatest stress on a boat that must be provided (designed) for is equivalent to a beam that goes between the bow and the stern. The boat pushes down, and the water pushes up. In the case of a kayak, the main load (force) down is the weight of the paddler right in the middle. Again, generally speaking, the most efficient beam (strength to weight) is some form of truss. I’ll just assume that all the people reading this have at least a vague idea of what a truss is. So the structural aspect of the frame is six laterally curved trusses: the main reason the boat can weigh so little. There are some obvious tradeoffs with this but, again, lightweight was the main design goal. Every designer would like to think that they have done something significant or important with their latest creation. I’m now quite sure that if that is even a little bit true for Alice, it is showing the potential for lightweight boats using laterally joined, discrete, longitudinal trusses for the frame.
So where am I? I have three boats (gave one away) that I really like. The wife and I may not communicate to any greater extent, but we are actually getting out and getting the boats in the water, which we really enjoy. I have a great sense of accomplishment and, knowing what I know now, I’d do it all again.
For those who might be interested: a 16 foot roll of full scale plans and a fifty page set of instructions are available for $100.00 (that includes shipping in the US).
To find out more about the boat, you should read the original article that was mentioned above.appeared in the May 2009 issue of MAIB. And/or contact Chuck Corwin, P.O. Box 689, Ketchum ID 83340. Or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
See Chuck's previous article.